THE EXORCISTS OF LADAKH
Good vs Evil on the Roof of the World
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Ladakh, the Land of High Passes nestled in the Himalayas, yearly hosts an incredible ceremony: mediums sink into trances, furious demons lash out at pilgrims, oracles scream as they become possessed by mutilating spirits.
This is a collective exorcism ritual that is unique in the world.
One photographer, Eric Pasquier, succeeded in taking pictures of the spectacular event – mostly with a telephoto lens. Because taking photographs of this ceremony is strictly forbidden and these pictures are ‘stolen’; prohibited by the iahs – the spirits of Ladakh whose wrath has no limits and who are armed with sabres and spears.Across the Kashmir Valley and over the famous Zoji La Pass lies Ladakh, a land of magic and extremes. Its freezing winds, parched landscapes and scorching sunlight makes it a cold desert, moulded and sculpted by the elements.
Bordering Pakistan, Tibet, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, this landlocked little eagle’s nest is so remote and inaccessible that ancient ways are still very much alive here. Before the advent of air travel, it could only be reached by traversing perilous mountain passes.
The average altitude of its valleys is between 2700 m and 4200 m above sea-level, and in winter no one enters or leaves this faraway land.Eric Pasquier gained entry in Ladakh in the late Spring to witness a bizarre two-day ceremony in which the forces of Good do battle with Evil. It only takes place in the small villages of Stok and Matho, which once a year change from being quiet, sleepy little settlements to magnets for thousands of pilgrims from every surrounding valley. Their monasteries are suddenly overrun by large crowds of devotees, all eager to take part in the exorcism of evil.
The pilgrims push their way into the monastery courtyard of Stok village in their impatience for the ritual to begin. A group of women, hands clasped and wearing the heavy turquoise headdress known as a perak, pray while sitting underneath a century-old willow tree outside the monastery walls.
The willow is considered to be the tree of oracles here. One of the women, an old crone whose tanned, wrinkled face resembles old shoe leather, smiles and says: “The Spirit will grant our wishes.” Exactly how she can be so sure is not clear, but her certainty is a comfort to her fellow devotees.
The men move forward slowly in the icy cold, labouring under the goatskins flung across their shoulders and wearing woollen bonnets or Tibetan caps, their upturned edges resembling two pointed ears. Hidden in the throng is one westerner:
Eric Pasquier. He is hiding his camera equipment beneath his thick, coarse woollen robe, because cameras are strictly forbidden here. For the Spirits cannot stand flashlights… Last year, a Japanese visitor whose instamatic was discovered, met with an accident and broke both his legs.
The explanation is simple to the locals: an iah threw him over the edge of a mountainside. Pasquier is undeterred, though careful not to draw more attention to himself than strictly necessary.
Ladakh opened up to the outside world fifteen years ago. Visitors are rare in this Himalayan aerie, although it has always been a melting-pot of different ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. Over the ages, they have embraced Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism which all came through Ladakh’s high passes on their way to the Far East.
Strange rituals have been perpetrated here since time began. They are the product of the mish-mash of Buddhism, Shamanism, Animism and Tantrism: a very ‘physical’ practise linked to yoga that enables one to enter a state of divinatory trance. Many of Ladakh’s festivals have, meanwhile, become famous in the outside world, the most well-known of these being the Hemis Chheshu, the largest summer festival held in Ladakh. Its masked dancers, dressed in a riot of colours, and its cacophony of cymbals, drums, horns and voices make this a typically Ladakhi festival: these occasions are always wild, bizarre, noisy and intense. The exorcisms at Stok and Matho are no exception…
The crowd continues to swell as the inhabitants of some of the highest valleys in the world gather together, trudging through the huge pool of snowy slush. The long copper horns so typical of this area pour forth their hoarse moaning, punctuated by the clashing of cymbals. Lamas disguised as grimacing monsters move slowly around in the centre of the courtyard – here are the iahs, whose eyes can see to the heart of any man and judge the purity of his soul.
All the iahs were chosen because of their unwavering faith. In Stok, the iahs are civilians; in Matho, they are bonzes who draw lucky numbers from a bowl of sandalwood. They spend nine months in the secret caves of the Himalayan mountains, meditating until the eve of the ceremony.
Furious cries suddenly break out. The iahs, wearing masks trimmed with skulls, dash wild-eyed amongst the pilgrims, sabres drawn. The dance of the oracles has begun. The villagers sink to their knees praying fervently, shaking with fear at drawing undue attention from the oracles and their sabres. The iahs scream unintelligible words at the pilgrims: the worshippers are not praying devoutly enough, the offerings are too small.
But this is not about punishing impure pilgrims. On the whole, the iah accepts the punishment in their stead by mutilating himself, so that the worshippers may be spared the Spirits’ wrath. An oracle seized by convulsions, runs the blade of his sabre along his arm before cutting his tongue with it. Another twists the blade between his hands before violently striking a man guilty of some sin or other. Then the women enter into trances: this is a good omen. The iah oracle calms down and his wounds heal immediately. By now, though, the worshippers are either on their knees, dancing, wailing or in trance.
The possessed proceed towards the inner courtyard, clambering over the wall and balancing on the rooftops. The iahs drop into the centre of the courtyard between two rows of kneeling pilgrims. They scream angry reprimands: “You no longer believe, your faith is dead,” aiming their sabres at an old man’s heart. Despite a temperature of –20C°, the oracles dance bare-chested, racing across the roofs blindfolded, eyes drawn in paint on their chests and backs: “The Spirit is their eyes.”
The iahs gradually calm down as they are draped with khalaks – white gauze veils – that are the symbols of submission and faith. The atmosphere becomes joyful. At last the oracles deliver their prophecies: they are invariably reassuring ones. The barley crop will be bountiful, the yak herds will be robust ‘as long as the villagers worship Buddha more fervently than ever’. The crowd is ecstatic. Trances continue until the iahs return to normality and gather quietly together to drink tea laced with curdled butter.
Two iahs sit drinking tea in the aftermath of the ceremony. It’s all over. A day ago, they were crazed demons, possessed by the spirits and mutilating themselves so that the worshippers might be spared. Now they are calm, benevolent looking men enjoying a warm cuppa. Rizen Cholden, 33, and Twenang Phunchock, 61 – the man who threatened the villagers one by one with his pointed sabre – look unrecognisable. They smilingly say they remember nothing.
Pasquier has witnessed the symbolic struggle of Good over Evil, the exorcism of impurities so that the villagers may be renewed for another year of hard work and living. Good had to win of course – the faithful needed to wipe their slates clean again after a year of tarnishing and sullying their spirits. It’s a new year again, a new beginning. Next year, the lamas will re-enter the monastery courtyards to enact the metaphor all over again, complete with its trances, demons and possessions. After all, as old sages know: “Gods or demons, the whole world is no more than a mirage.”